Don Garber’s Insistence On Downtown Miami Location Is An Easy Out For MLS

MLS Commissioner Don Garber reiterated this week that David Beckham must find a downtown Miami location for his MLS stadium. Otherwise, MLS will not expand to the city.

Garber said:

“Miami remains a top priority for us. But we are mindful of the challenges we had in the past and must have the right ownership group and stadium location. David has been working to secure additional partners, all if approved, would be terrific MLS owners. David and his partners have not yet been able to secure a site that we believe provides the proper access and iconic presence that will help ensure success. We remain focused on a downtown Miami location, and we will not expand to Miami unless we have a downtown site for the stadium.”

With Garber, you never know when he’s spinning things. In this case, it looks like he’s politicking in order to apply pressure on the Miami-Dade politicians to know that MLS and Beckham are serious when they want a downtown Miami location for a MLS team. Or does he completely believe it’s a scenario of “downtown Miami or bust”?

A downtown Miami location next to the water would make it one of the most beautiful stadiums in the United States. Garber, MLS and Beckham would be able to get a ton of media coverage and kudos that focused on the stadium, which would fuel numerous feel-good media pieces about the Miami MLS team.

In Garber’s quote, you can read between the lines that the stadium location was one of the reasons why Miami Fusion failed, which is completely untrue. The Lockhart Stadium location was ideal — down the street from I-95, and easily accessible for soccer fans from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. The only reason why the Fusion failed was because owner Ken Horowitz didn’t want to invest in the team any longer, and MLS didn’t want to bankroll the team until a new investor was found.

In Garber’s quote, something else to pay close attention to is that he focuses on two important parts regarding the stadium location. “David and his partners have not yet been able to secure a site that we believe provides the proper access and iconic presence that will help ensure success.”

I don’t blame Garber for wanting a stadium that has an iconic presence. We all want that, but it shouldn’t be the top priority. His point that the stadium be one that “provides the proper access” is peculiar because there are stadiums throughout South Florida that would provide far better access than one that’s locked into downtown Miami. If you live in downtown Miami or Miami Beach, it’s a perfect location. But a downtown Miami location doesn’t provide “proper access” for soccer fans in western Miami-Dade County, or Broward and Palm Beach counties — which is home to the majority of soccer fans in the area.

While Garber’s words may be a way to try to help apply more pressure on Miami-Dade politicians, Garber’s insistence on a downtown Miami location is unfortunate, and here’s why.

South Florida has already proven that a stadium doesn’t have to be in downtown Miami to be a success. There’s already another stadium that has “proper access” (accessible to Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, and next to a major highway). And one that has an “iconic presence” (that faces to the west, to capture the beautiful Florida sunsets). It’s also one that is undergoing a privately-financed $350 million facelift. That location is Sun Life Stadium, on the border of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and easily accessible for soccer fans from all three counties. In November, the stadium set the record for the most-attended soccer game in Florida history when 71,124 fans watched Brazil against Honduras. Last summer, 67,273 fans watched Real Madrid against Chelsea.

Just like Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, the stadium is unused for the vast majority of the year due to its NFL team playing its season from September to January. But unlike CenturyLink Field, the Sun Life Stadium was built to soccer field requirements and features natural grass instead of artificial turf.

Unfortunately, Garber and Beckham are resistant to considering Sun Life Stadium as an option, which would save Beckham’s investors $250 million for estimated stadium costs, because they’re (1) insistent on the stadium being in downtown Miami, and (2) they want to have their own stadium.

It doesn’t make sense.

My question for Don Garber is why is he so adamant about the stadium location being in downtown Miami? What is it about downtown Miami that makes it a “downtown Miami or bust” scenario? Other than the iconic presence, I can only assume that he wants a location that looks and feels like quintessential Miami, and that it’s a must-visit place for tourists and locals in the Miami area.

The danger for Garber and MLS is that by putting so many eggs in one basket and demanding that the stadium only be in downtown Miami, the prospect of a Miami MLS team may vanish completely if they’re unwilling to be flexible. By insisting on having a vanity stadium, Garber and MLS are missing out on all of the benefits of having a team that is more representative (and accessible) to South Florida instead of just Miami.

Instead, Garber has now put the Miami MLS team in a corner where if Beckham doesn’t get a downtown Miami stadium location, it’s an easy out for MLS to exit Miami. Garber can then help Beckham find a different city or team elsewhere, perhaps Chivas USA.

The frustrations with this whole process of trying to bring a MLS team to Miami are that Garber (1) doesn’t understand the market in South Florida, and (2) appears to have one rule for Miami and another rule for MLS. The decision to play New York City FC at Yankees Stadium is less than ideal, and despite no plans for a soccer-specific stadium in place, NYCFC will launch in the spring of 2015. At the same time, MLS Miami is left to twist in the wind as it tries to shoehorn a stadium into downtown Miami.

Meanwhile, a viable option at Sun Life Stadium is ready from day one either as a temporary or permanent solution. To ignore that would be a shame.

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